Favoritism guided funds for reading, report says

Md. firm's complaint led to federal probe into steering of grants

September 26, 2006|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Sun Reporter

Four years ago, a nonprofit education firm called Success for All occupied four floors in a Towson office building and employed 500 people. Hundreds of schools across the country were signing up to use its highly regarded reading curriculum, which stresses phonics.

Today, Success for All has laid off two-thirds of its employees and shrunk to two floors. A federal inspector general's report appears to explain why. It says the U.S. Department of Education steered federal grant money to certain reading programs and away from others.

The report, issued last week, accuses the department of favoritism, conflict of interest and mismanagement in the awarding of $4.8 billion in federal funds.

Robert Slavin, the Johns Hopkins University education professor who co-founded the Success for All Foundation and spent years researching effective reading programs, said he watched in disbelief as the nonprofit lost business because states chose to adopt other programs favored by U.S. officials.

Slavin, chairman of Success for All, prompted the federal investigation by going to the inspector general in May last year and telling authorities what he thought was going on. "There is nothing in the report that we haven't been saying for two years," Slavin said yesterday. "It is a vindication of sorts."

The focus of the investigators' attention also is someone from Baltimore. The inspector general's report is severely critical of Christopher Doherty, who worked with city school programs before becoming director of the Reading First grants in Washington.

The report quotes heavily from e-mail messages that Doherty sent to colleagues in which he appears determined to stamp out reading programs he disliked, including an approach once called "whole language." His e-mails made clear that he did not want whole language programs to get Reading First money from his office.

"Beat the [expletive] out of them in a way that will stand up to any level of legal and [whole language] apologist scrutiny," Doherty wrote in an e-mail, arguing that whole language advocates did not have research to support their approach. "Hit them over and over with definitive evidence. ... They are trying to crash our party and we need to beat the [expletive] out of them in front of all the would-be party crashers who are standing on the front lawn waiting to see how we welcome these dirtbags."

Doherty resigned from his federal post last week, effective at the end of this month. A department spokesman said Doherty would have no comment.

In an interview, Slavin said he has long suspected that federal Reading First money was being directed to favored programs - and that his Success for All was not on the list despite good reviews and research showing its effectiveness.

He said he's puzzled that his program did not get money because it is based on phonics, which Doherty championed, and not whole language. And Slavin says he's angry because Reading First money was supposed to be awarded to curriculums with scientific proof that they worked, and his program is backed by such research.

"It just didn't fit their model of how they wanted to do this," he said. "To this day, I don't know why."

Doherty, who lives in Baltimore, went to the U.S. Department of Education after a job as executive director of the Baltimore Curriculum Project, a nonprofit that ran three city schools using a phonics-based program called Direct Instruction. The project was funded for many years by the Abell Foundation and was considered a successful experiment in education that improved those schools.

Doherty was also a board member of the Baraka School in Africa, which recently received national attention in a documentary film.

Reading First is a program under the federal No Child Left Behind law that was designed to give out federal money to school systems that chose "research-based reading programs." A recent review by the Center on Education Policy, an independent foundation, concluded that programs funded by Reading First are helping to raise achievement in schools. No one has suggested that children were harmed because of the alleged mismanagement in the federal office.

Under the three-year program, states had to write proposals specifying how they would use Reading First money to teach reading and check on student progress. The federal law specifies that the Department of Education cannot tell a state or local school system which textbooks or curriculum to use, so Reading First officials could not issue a list of acceptable reading programs. But, in effect, that is what Doherty did, the report suggests.

Specifically, it says that when the Reading First office set up panels of experts to review state proposals, it chose people with close ties to certain reading programs.

The report says Doherty recruited several people who worked with Direct Instruction, including his former boss at the Baltimore Curriculum Project, Muriel Berkeley, and asked her to serve on the panels.

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